subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

That the World Health Organization (WHO) has of late been undermining democratic institutions worldwide is not necessarily a revelation given the uniform way many governments have, partly at the WHO’s instigation, responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. But this should not distract anyone from the anti-democratic aspects of the WHO’s long-time obsession: regulating the lifestyle choices of consumers as regards tobacco.

Under the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control a so-called “Congress of the Parties” (COP) to the convention will meet from November 8 to 13, followed from November 15 to 17 by a “Meeting of the Parties” (MOP) to the Illicit Trade Protocol, both in The Hague. The impression is that “the parties” to the convention will be represented at these meetings, but the fact of the matter is far more unfortunate.

Only a small group of credentialed state representatives and NGOs, which represent a single perspective on a multifaceted debate on public health and consumer choice, participate at COP and MOP meetings. This group is in effect vested with the power to make international law without any parliamentary oversight or public participation.


If SA is a “party” to the convention and protocol, it makes sense that the representatives of all the relevant stakeholders — consumers, manufacturers, distributors, government, academia — ought to be involved in crafting SA’s input at these meetings, but this is not the case. Even the press may not monitor the proceedings, and the minutes from these meetings have, with time, become less detailed. This harms accountability and transparency.

The slogan “nothing about us, without us” conveys an important principle of public policy that has been manifested throughout history in various forms. The American creed of “no taxation without representation” and the SA struggle against a minority regime that excluded most people in important political decisions, are only two examples.

The idea is exceedingly simple but crucial: policy decisions that involve certain stakeholders cannot be taken without the involvement of those stakeholders, certainly not if they stand to be detrimentally affected by those decisions. Why has the WHO, which is supposed to represent the apex of integrity in public health policy, made itself guilty of violating this principle?

Most concerning is that organisations associated with the tobacco industry have not only simply been excluded, but have been consciously banned from participating. One’s opinion about the harms of smoking notwithstanding, the principle that relevant stakeholders must be involved in decisions that most intimately affect them must be maintained.

And it is not only cigarette manufacturers that have been banned, but everyone in their supply chain. At the COP7 meeting in Delhi some years ago, a group of tobacco farmers who were peacefully protesting outside the conference venue were forcefully removed by security officials, and taken by bus to a faraway location to continue their protest. Naturally, a protest that is not nearby to its subject is a pointless exercise.

What’s more, Interpol, which actively combats the illicit cigarette trade, has also been excluded. Not even law enforcement gets a seat at the table. The apparent reason? Because Interpol has to work with tobacco companies on occasion to do its work effectively.

COP and MOP are in effect a legislative process, where law and public policy that must be obeyed are decided. This process cannot have any legitimacy, nor can the policies it produces be truly evidence-based, when everyone except a small cabal of anti-tobacco campaigners have been excluded. COP and MOP are not throat-clearing exercises — their decisions have real-world consequences for consumer freedom, economic dynamism, and public health.

Vaping has been shown conclusively to be far less harmful than smoking tobacco (though nothing is risk-free), and is instrumental to weaning smokers off cigarettes.

It is from forums like COP and MOP that the global war on vaping emanates. Vaping has been shown conclusively to be far less harmful than smoking tobacco (though nothing is risk-free), and is instrumental to weaning smokers off cigarettes. The WHO nonetheless encourages member states to stringently regulate the e-cigarette market, as is proposed in SA’s ill-considered Control of Tobacco Products & Electronic Delivery Systems Bill.

A recent survey by Information Resources Incorporated conducted in New Zealand in September asked more than 500 Kiwi vapers what they thought of New Zealand’s use of vaping as a tool to help smokers quit. Over 80% said vaping had helped them to reduce or quit smoking. A further 62% believed New Zealand should speak out against any efforts by the WHO to ban or restrict vaping.

The closed nature of these meetings means these facts cannot be openly and constructively shared and debated with policymakers. Ultimately, the WHO’s agenda is glaringly obvious: it seeks to revive the failed idea of prohibition. Whether it was alcohol during the 1920s in the US, or marijuana around the world during the past half-century, legally prohibiting the use of a product for which there is market demand is a fool’s errand.

The US had to walk back alcohol prohibition after it created an underground criminal network dedicated to the distribution and sale of booze, often characterised by violence. The global war on drugs has yielded similar violent syndicates that can only flourish because the products they traffic in have been prohibited. SA is now in the process of decriminalising marijuana use.

The more tobacco products are regulated, the higher they are taxed, and the more there are moves closer to total prohibition, the more the illicit tobacco trade flourishes. Some of the practical effects of this are more underaged smoking (illicit sellers do not care that the law prohibits under-18s from smoking), decreased tax revenue for government, and the potential funding of global terrorism. In SA, the illicit trade has already had political consequences as well, with some of the country’s most highly placed politicians being suspected of involvement in this increasingly lucrative criminal enterprise.

The only sustainable way to end this gravy train and forestall a potentially violent “tobacco wars” future for SA’s poorer areas is to restore respect for the freedom of choice of consumers. A necessary start to this process is to open up the COP and MOP meetings to public participation and scrutiny.

• Van Staden is a member of the executive committee and rule of law board of advisers of the Free Market Foundation. He is pursuing a doctorate in law at the University of Pretoria.

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.